The content of intentions, practical reasoning and self-knowledge
Introducing the notion of rational (by contrast with non-rational and proto-rational) animals in the move from willing to intending considered in the previous section introduces the possibility of intentions in action that are the result of practical reasoning, whether directed to the future or the present. Of course, not all the intentional actions of rational subjects need result from deliberation. Some are direct responses to the environmental solicitations (a point that is of importance in his disagreement with Hubert Dreyfus discussed later in this chapter). But McDowell nevertheless follows Elizabeth Anscombe in taking practical reasoning as of key importance in understanding intentions. Her quotes her saying:
‘Practical reasoning’, or ‘practical syllogism’, which means the same thing, was one of Aristotle’s best discoveries. But its true character has been obscured. It is commonly supposed to be ordinary reasoning leading to such a conclusion as: ‘I ought to do such-and-such.’ By ‘ordinary reasoning’ I mean the only reasoning ordinarily considered in philosophy: reasoning towards the truth of a proposition, which is supposedly shewn to be true by the premises. [Anscombe 2000: 57-8 cited in McDowell 2010: 420]
McDowell takes this passage as a clue to the importance of a distinction between practical and theoretical reasoning (and hence knowledge), which has implications for the content and proper way to express intentions in action and for the first person epistemology of intentional action, the twin subjects of this section.
In ‘What is the content of an intention in action?’, McDowell defends the following bald thesis:
The content of an intention in action is given by what one would say in expressing it, or what one would say in stating the practical knowledge one has in executing it, which comes to the same thing. And the appropriate form is ‘I am doing such-and-such’. [McDowell 2010: 417]
This contrasts with accounts such as that of Wilfrid Sellars of the form: ‘I shall raise my hand now’ or of Donald Davidson, which takes the content to contain something normative or evaluative such as ‘I ought to improve the taste of the stew’ [Davidson 1980: 86; Sellars 1966].
Davidson’s account of intentions highlights a view of practical reasoning that contrasts with the Anscombian account that McDowell endorses. Davidson takes intentions to be something like all-out judgements of the desirability of some act. ‘All-out’ contrasts with prima facie. Judgements. Thus to modify an example Anscombe and McDowell deploy, consider the following syllogism
· Any food containing vitamin X is desirable
· Pig’s tripes are full of vitamin X
· Therefore, pig’s tripes are desirable
The conclusion seems too strong because whilst pig’s tripes may be desirable in so far as they contain vitamin X, there may be other reasons, such as their flavour, which count against them and count against them more than the presence of vitamin X counts in their favour.
Prima facie judgements cannot be directly associated with actions, for it is not reasonable to perform an action merely because it has a desirable characteristic. It is a reason for acting that the action is believed to have a desirable characteristic, but the fact that the action is performed represents a further judgement that the desirable characteristic was enough to act on – that other considerations did not outweigh it. [Davidson 1980: 98]
In the face of this, Davidson suggests that there can be judgements that take into account everything an agent thinks about a potential action. Such a judgement is ‘all things considered’. Nevertheless, he argues that there is still a logical a gap between an all things considered judgement and what is required for acting: an all out judgement. An all things considered judgement is still conditional even if it is of the form that an action is desirable in all respects considered or as McDowell says: ‘A judgment of preferability in so far as…, even though what fills the blank includes everything the subject thinks relevant’ [McDowell 2010: 419]. What is needed for action, according to Davidson, is an unconditional, all-out judgement of the desirability of some prospective action.
Given that the transition from an all things considered judgement to an all-out judgement cannot, for example, be captured in first order logic, this opens up a way for Davidson to characterise weakness of will in the paper ‘How is weakness of the will possible?’ [Davidson 1980: 21-42]. The weak-willed subject is someone whose all things considered judgement that one action of an incompatible pair, for example, is the more desirable is paired with an all-out judgement concerning the desirability of the other. Whilst the subject is irrational, Davidson’s machinery allows for a description which is not self-contradictory. The clashing judgements are distinct. ‘The point of invoking the contrast between judgments all-out and judgments all things considered is not to make the weak-willed person look perfectly rational, but to enable us to avoid contradiction when we describe her.’ [McDowell 2010: 419]
But although an account of weakness of will looks to be a bonus, it stems from Davidson’s assumption that the best a practical syllogism itself can generate is a judgement about the prima facie or conditional desirability of actions which in turn requires a ‘patch’, in Julia Tanney’s helpful phrase, to link to action [Tanney 2013: 35].
Furthermore, whilst Davidson’s claim that the logical form of an intention is something like an all-out judgement of the desirability of some potential action is drawn from his account of the practical syllogism, it fails to accommodate something that Anscombe, at least, holds to be important. On her view, it is important that practical reasoning is not aimed at establishing truths in the way that theoretical reasoning is. (This needs some care as, as I will describe, it does result in truths.)
One way to arrive at the Anscombian position McDowell favours is to block Davidson’s argument for his alternative. Davidson argues that the kind of practical syllogism set out above at best shows that an action is prima facie desirable, is desirable in so far as it has such and such characteristics. He argues that that is insufficient for acting. But McDowell argues that this is not the case. Just such a practical syllogism can show why someone acted. It can be a sufficient explanation.
Suppose we ask the man why he took the pig’s tripes, and he gives us the premises of Anscombe’s syllogism in response. Would we object that the explanation is incomplete until we know whether he considered the prospect of a disgusting taste and decided not to let it deter him? Anscombe’s syllogism provides a reason-revealing explanation of his action, even if we think it was stupid of him not to be deterred by the prospect of a disgusting taste. Contrary to what Davidson says, it can be reasonable to perform an action merely because it has a desirable characteristic. [McDowell 2010: 425]
Davidson’s idea that the conclusion must be an outright verdict in favour of doing such-and-such seems to be distorting the point of saying the agent judges the desirable characteristic to be enough to act on. As I said, the point is just to register that the agent draws the conclusion. What that means is not that he moves from a prima facie reason for acting as he does to an outright judgment in favour of doing that, but just that he acts as he does for the reason constituted by the desirable characteristic. [McDowell 2010: 426]
There are two important ideas in the quotations above. The first is that the syllogism is not incomplete if as a matter of fact an agent acts for the reason set out in the premises of the syllogism. That is not to say that more information could not be added, that more reasons could be operative. But the fact that the tripes contain the vitamin could be the reason why an agent ate them. That could be the answer given to a reason-requesting ‘Why?’ question. Such an objection blocks the need for the machinery of prima facie, all things considered and all-out judgements of desirability.
The second idea is that the conclusion of a piece of practical reasoning is an action not a judgement of desirability. As I will describe, this is central to Anscombe’s view of the importance and distinctiveness of practical reason.
So far, this is merely another option. McDowell has blocked Davidson’s argument from the claim that syllogisms can deal merely in prima facie reasons, thus undermining Davidson’s argument that the form of an intention is something like a judgement of desirability. But that is not to say that McDowell’s alternative is better. And at this point, the fact that Davidson’s machinery seems to offer an account of weakness of will may point in its favour. McDowell attempts to neutralise this second point by giving his own account of weakness of will. There is no need for the distinctions between all things considered and all-out judgements to make the fundamental claim that a weak-willed person judges that an action is outweighed by other considerations but he or she nevertheless still acts. Such a person takes the considerations in favour of that action as sufficient even though they are trumped by other reasons she also holds.
The irrationality of the weak-willed person lies precisely in the fact that she judges that the reason for which she acts is outweighed by other considerations, even while, in acting as she does, she treats it as enough to act on. [McDowell 2010: 427]
This point is consistent with the more minimal view of the connection between the practical syllogism and the intention to act that McDowell following Anscombe favours.
This still leaves a ‘score draw’, however. The Davidsonian and Anscombian views both offer some account of the practical syllogism, the form of an intention and weakness of will. Anscombe claims that the practical syllogism is precisely practical rather than theoretical but even this is not initially decisive because, as McDowell concedes, Davidson’s all-out judgements are practical in one sense: they are normative. They stand to subsequent actions as appropriate orders stand to actions. In both cases, if one does not act in accord with the prescription, the failure lies in the acting not in the order or the judgement. This ‘direction of fit’ contrasts with beliefs where any failure of fit lies with the belief not with facts or events.
Anscombe herself uses a similar contrast in form of defect to highlight a difference between practical and theoretical reason using the famous example of a man obeying his wife’s shopping list followed by a detective recording what he buys. (She herself does not use the phrase ‘direction of fit’ and is concerned with actions specifically rather than the world more broadly.)
Let us consider a man going round town with a shopping list in his hand. Now it is clear that the relation of this list to the things he actually buys is one and the same whether his wife gave him the list or it is his own list; and that there is a different relation when a list is made by a detective following him about. If he made the list himself, it was an expression of intention; if his wife gave it to him, it has the role of an order. What then is the identical relation to what happens, in the order and in the intention, which is not shared by the record? It is precisely this: if the list and the things that the man actually buys do not agree, and if this and this alone constitutes a mistake, then the mistake is not in the list but in the man’s performance (if his wife were to say: ‘Look, it says butter and you have bought margarine’, he would hardly reply: ‘What a mistake! we must put that right’ and alter the word on the list to ‘margarine’); whereas if the detective’s record and what the man actually buys do not agree, then the mistake is in the record. [Anscombe 2000: 56]
A mismatch between the shopper’s initial list and what is in the basket is a defect of his acting. A mismatch in the latter case is a defect in the detective’s list, not the action. Since, however, Davidson’s account can also meet this criterion, which Anscombe herself uses to shed light on the practical nature of practical reasoning, there is not yet a decisive reason to prefer Anscombe’s own account.
Despite this, there remains a key argument which is that practical reasoning gives rise to a distinct form of knowledge: practical knowledge. An agent normally knows what it is that she is doing. But she knows this, not through being passively receptive but rather directly through her agency. In fact, Anscombe uses the possibility of knowledge without observation as a clue to identifying the class of intentional actions [Anscombe 2000: 13-5]
Anscombe thinks that practical knowledge contrasts with theoretical or contemplative knowledge in the direction of its dependence on the facts known. Whilst theoretical knowledge depends on receptiveness to goings on that are prior to, and independent of, knowledge of them, practical knowledge is ‘the cause of what it understands’ [Anscombe 2000: 87]. One knows what one is doing precisely because one intends to do it. And now McDowell’s favoured account of the form of an intention helps explain how such knowledge is possible.
The content of an intention in action is given by what one would say in expressing it, or what one would say in stating the practical knowledge one has in executing it, which comes to the same thing. And the appropriate form is ‘I am doing such-and-such’. [McDowell 2010: 417]
If the output of practical reasoning is an intention in action, or simply an action under a rational psychological description, and if such knowledge determines, rather than receptively responds to, what it concerns, then practical reasoning can lead to practical knowledge of what one is doing. McDowell commends a slogan Anscombe discusses: ‘I do what happens’ [Anscombe 2000: 52]. Such a slogan directly and explicitly connects McDowell’s preferred sketch of the form of an intention – ‘I am doing such-and-such’ – with a consequence. What one does is a worldly happening. And so there is the promise, at least, of an account of the kind of authority an agent has over her actions. She knows, in virtue of being its agent, what it is that transpires. And that is not a mere internal feature of her psychology but rather a feature of the world.
By contrast with this picture of the direct connection between practical reasoning and practical knowledge of worldly events – those events corresponding to intentional actions – Davidson’s preferred analysis of the form of an intention, as something like an all-out judgement of desirability, offers no similar account of how practical knowledge of worldly events is possible.
There is, however, a fly in the ointment. If agential knowledge is knowledge of worldly events, rather than of an inner realm, it is vulnerable to another sort of defect. I described above the different directions of fit in Anscombe’s example of the shopping list that guides the shopper and the description of what is being bought by the detective. A mismatch in the former case is a defect in the determination of action by a prescriptive list rather than from the action to a description. But if practical knowledge is not merely knowledge of an insulated mental realm but of world-involving actions then it is susceptible to worldly contingencies.
Anscombe gives the example of knowing, practically, that she is writing ‘I am a fool’ on a blackboard with chalk. When all goes well, she knows what she is doing not, receptively, by seeing what transpires but rather by doing it. But successfully writing ‘I am a fool’ on the board depends on the chalk and board doing their stuff and that may not happen. Further, its happening or not is not wholly within Anscombe’s control: it depends on a worldly favour.
Consider two cases. In one, Anscombe decides to write ‘I am a fool’ on her blackboard and does so. Whilst doing so, and looking at her audience rather than the blackboard, she says: ‘I know I am writing “I am a fool” on the blackboard’. The second case is the same except that the chalk fails to leave a mark. Of this second sort, McDowell comments that it involves a:
derivative defect not in what one is doing but in what one says, if one expresses what purports to be a bit of practical knowledge when one is not doing the thing in question, or if one expresses the corresponding intention. [McDowell 2010: 429]
Such a derivative defect does not trump or rule out a primary defect. The hypothetical Anscombe, in the second case, intends to write on the board but fails to do so. So there is a defect in her action of the same sort as a failure to execute an appropriate order. But additionally, there is a defect in what she says when she says that she is writing ‘I am a fool’ on the board because she is not. Her claim to express practical knowledge, of what she is doing, fails.
I wrote ‘I am a fool’ on the blackboard with my eyes shut. Now when I said what I wrote, ought I to have said: this is what I am writing, if my intention is getting executed; instead of simply: this is what I am writing? Orders, however, can be disobeyed, and intentions fail to get executed. That intention for example would not have been executed if something had gone wrong with the chalk or the surface, so that the words did not appear. And my knowledge would have been the same even if this had happened. If then my knowledge is independent of what actually happens, how can it be knowledge of what does happen? Someone might say that it is a funny sort of knowledge that was still knowledge even though what it was knowledge of was not the case! On the other hand Theophrastus’ remark holds good: ‘the mistake is in the performance, not in the judgment’. [Anscombe 2000: 82]
The idea that one’s knowledge would have been the same even if one’s intention in action had failed and hence that one’s knowledge of one’s own action is independent of what actually happens must be wrong. In any case, it violates McDowell’s key claim that theoretical knowledge is factive (see chapter 5) and he claims, surely correctly, that practical knowledge too is incompatible with falsehood. Any attempt to defend the idea that practical knowledge is, nevertheless, successful despite the failure to obtain of corresponding worldly events would require a retreat to thinking of practical knowledge as merely governing an inner realm: a realm, perhaps, of mere tryings. That Anscombe has no such idea in mind is indicated by an earlier passage.
What can opening the window be except making such-and-such movements with such-and-such result? And in that case what can knowing one is opening the window be except knowing that that is taking place. Now if there are two ways of knowing here, one of which I call knowledge of one’s intentional action, and the other of which I call knowledge by observation of what takes place, then must there not be two objects of knowledge? How can one speak of two different knowledges of exactly the same thing?... [N]o, here the description, opening the window, is identical, whether it is known by observation or by its being one’s intentional action. [Anscombe 2000: 51]
But as Michael Thompson points out, there is an apparent tension in combining the possibilities of both modes of knowledge for action. The obvious paradigm case for self-knowledge is knowledge of inner mental states for which direct knowledge by observation seems impossible. The obvious paradigm for a form of knowledge of the self that is also available by observation is such as having a stain on one’s trousers for which non-observational self-knowledge is impossible.
We will all or mostly all say that, on the part of their bearer, inner psychical things are “known from within,” and not as something alien and from without; they are contents of her self-knowledge or self-consciousness in standard cases; but, for others, on the other hand… they are not exactly directly intuitable, potentially observable, features, like hair color or posture. How can something that is captured in an observational concept, as we might put it – something that is such as to be observed, or known from without through the impact of the thing known – in this case something that is happening or going on, a material process - how can such a thing be, at the same time and intrinsically, such as to be “known from within”? It is difficult to combine the two models of knowledge; the idea of self-knowledge seems to draw the thing known into the agent and away from others. And the picture of things knowable from an intuition of an external substance seems to put them at a distance from the cognition even of that substance, if it is a knower. He must look down to see the gravy on his jacket or the coffee stain on his pants. [Thompson 2011: 202]
Thompson’s response to this tension is, again, to stress the imperfective nature of intention in action (described in the previous section) and now its connection to practical knowledge.
[T]here is practical knowledge only when the thing is precisely NOT done, not PAST; there is more to come, something is missing, and the H-bomb may hit before it does. My so-called knowledge of my intentional action in truth exists only and precisely when there is no action, but only something I am doing. [Thompson 2011: 209]
He himself applies this to another famous example from Davidson of a man trying to make ten carbon copies of his signature not knowing, as presses down, whether it is reaching the bottom sheet. Suppose that he is successful. If so, he has intentionally copied his signature through all ten copies but without knowing this. If so, this seems to violate Anscombe’s claims about non-observational practical knowledge going hand in hand with intentional action. But Thompson argues that any normal subject in ordinary circumstances would, as part of the signing, look to check the copies were being made, and if not start again, but still as part of the broader action of copying the signature. Perhaps, he suggests, Davidson’s subject is under mafia threat. But if so, his action is akin to buying a lottery ticket and hoping for success and thus not a counter-example to Anscombe’s claims about practical knowledge of intentional action.
Adrian Haddock applies a similar analysis to Anscombe’s example:
Imagine that I am writing “I am a fool” on the blackboard with my eyes shut, and I get as far as the second “a” when my bit of chalk crumbles to dust. That is annoying, but hardly serious; I just pick up a new bit of chalk from the desk and finish the job. It is a way of acknowledging the so- called broadness of the progressive – a phenomenon to which Anscombe explicitly draws our attention – to acknowledge that I am still writing “I am a fool” on the blackboard when I am picking up the new bit of chalk. In actual fact, this does not happen – all goes swimmingly. But even if this had happened, I would still have been writing “I am a fool” on the blackboard at this time – even though my intention to write “I am a fool” on the blackboard would not have been executed by this time – and I would still have known I was doing so, i.e., “my knowledge would have been the same, even if this had happened”. [Haddock 2011: 168-9]
The difficulty with this reading of the example and its relation to the one before, however, is the role of the subject closing her eyes in Anscombe’s original version. Without the context of the possibility of reopening them and trying again, does she know what she is doing: whether she is successfully or unsuccessfully writing? If there is no possibility in the context, then that seems to make her version more akin Thompson’s treatment of Davidson’s case where success is akin to taking part in a lottery and not something knowable to the subject. In fact, however, Anscombe discusses the role of vision in writing elsewhere in Intention.
A very clear and interesting case of this is that in which I shut my eyes and write something. I can say what I am writing. And what I say I am writing will almost always in fact appear on the paper. Now here it is clear that my capacity to say what is written is not derived from any observation. In practice of course what I write will very likely not go on being very legible if I don’t use my eyes. But isn’t the role of all our observation-knowledge in knowing what we are doing like the role of the eyes in producing successful writing? That is to say, once given that we have knowledge or opinion about the matter in which we perform intentional actions, our observation is merely an aid. [Anscombe 2000: 53]
Whether this successful preserves the idea that one can have practical knowledge of an intentional action which is identical to knowledge of a worldly happening is not clear.
McDowell does not discuss the interpretation of Thompson and Haddock but does, like them. aim to redeem Anscombe’s idea that practical knowledge is both a distinct form – which is the cause of what is known – whilst also being knowledge of actual events. He suggests that the solution is a form of disjunctivism.
There is a clear parallel here with the case of perceptual knowledge discussed in chapters 5 and 6 above. There, the idea that perception can ground empirical knowledge seems to be in tension with the fact that apparent perceptions can be misleading. In that case, McDowell’s favoured conclusion is that experience can take two forms. It can either be a veridical case of taking in some environmental fact in which case what one experiences, coupled with suitable conceptual resources, is sufficient for knowledge. On the other hand, it can be a misleading experience which merely seems to be of the relevant fact. In such a case, what seems to be a ground for knowledge is not. The conclusion to be resisted, however, is that the most experience can provide is a highest common factor of the two cases. If that were the case, direct perceptual knowledge would never be possible because experience would never provide a warrant which was incompatible with the falsity of the claim it seemed to support. Hence disjunctivism about perceptual warrant or justification. Roughly, experiences either take in the facts they seem to, or they do not. If they do: that is enough – given suitable conceptual capacities – for knowledge. The question of how one knows which disjunct one inhabits is a distinct question that need not be answered to enjoy perceptual warrant in the first place.
Without developing such an account, McDowell suggests that the right response to the case of the broken chalk is a form of disjunctivism about practical knowledge. In the good disjunct, the fact that one formed an intention to act is sufficient for practical knowledge of what is happening even if such a capacity is, like perceptual knowledge, fallible.
This section and the one before have outlined McDowell’s account of action which draws heavily on Anscombe’s neo-Aristotelian account in Intention and O’Shaughnessy’s dual aspect account of the will, extended by McDowell to cover the case of intentional action. The result is a picture of action and intention in action as conceptual through and through and thus offering a close parallel with the account of perceptual experience set out in Mind and World. In the final section of this chapter I will assess the charge that both aspects threaten to introduce a detached distance between the world, both perceived and acted within, and rational human subjects.